New Fire Erupts in Basement of Arson-Damaged Central Library

Times Staff Writers

Another fire struck the Los Angeles Central Library late Tuesday afternoon, erupting in the basement where construction workers have been renovating areas damaged by two arson-set blazes in 1986.

No books were in the structure at the time and no injuries were reported.

The latest fire in the historic structure was reported at 5:17 p.m., when smoke was discovered on the fourth floor. More than a dozen engine companies, including at least 80 firefighters, were dispatched to the structure at 5th and Flower streets.

The fire was reported knocked down within half an hour, but downtown rush-hour traffic was snarled for blocks around. City traffic control officers were summoned in an effort to untangle the near-gridlock jam.


Cause for Concern

Assistant Fire Chief Gerald Johnson said a primary cause for concern was the fact that asbestos removal work had been going on. Consequently, firefighters entering the building wore breathing apparatus to protect themselves from the carcinogen.

There is a sprinkler system in the basement, but it was not operational, fire officials said.

“Had the sprinklers been in place, it would have been an insignificant fire,” Johnson said.


Fire officials said the only damage was to some building materials that caught fire, and some minor smoke damage to murals in the building lobby. No monetary estimate was available.

Cause of the fire was under investigation.

Books in Storage

Library employees are working at a temporary library in the former Design Center on South Spring Street until the $152-million restoration is completed in mid-1992. Library books are in storage at various facilities.

The arson fire that struck the library on April 29, 1986, raged out of control for six hours, destroying hundreds of thousands of books, pictures and artwork. Damage was estimated at $22 million.

More than 40 firefighters were injured battling that blaze, which broke out in periodical stacks on the second floor.

Library officials said later that quick, aggressive salvage work by the firefighters saved at least 80% of the library’s collection of 2 million books.

An army of volunteers cleaned 900,000 volumes that were later stored in warehouses. Another 700,000 books that sustained water damage were flash frozen and are now being restored.


A second fire--also apparently started by an arsonist--broke out in the reading room of the art and music departments the following Sept. 3 while the library was still closed to the public. That blaze burned books and other items. The room contained sheet music and volumes that were more than a century old.

The following February, a 28-year-old Hollywood man was arrested as a suspect after a telephone tipster said he had been bragging about starting the first fire, but he was subsequently released when investigators concluded that he was not responsible.

A massive program was launched to preserve damaged books, while the Community Redevelopment Agency and the city Library Commission laid plans to restore and even enlarge the classic old structure.

The building--a mixture of Byzantine, Egyptian and Roman revival-style architecture--was designed by architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue and patterned after the Nebraska State Capitol, which he also designed.